Friday, July 14, 2023

Absolution (1978)

... aka: Anthony Shaffer's Absolution
... aka: Kokuhaku no wana (Confession Trap)
... aka: Murder by Confession
... aka: Syndernas förlåtelse (Remission of Sins)

Directed by:
Anthony Page

Richard Burton, during his late career dive into genre cinema that included roles in Bluebeard (1972), an Oscar-nominated turn in the psychological drama Equus (1977), the oft-ridiculed Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) and The Medusa Touch (1978), headlines this forgotten British production as strict and joyless Father Goddard, teacher at the all-made Catholic boarding school St. Anthony's. During one of his classes, he brings up confession. Specifically, why having a partition / screen in between the priest and the confessor is important. First off, it provides anonymity for the confessor so that they're not intimidated when it comes to unveiling their most grievous sins. Second, sitting alone in the dark booth reminds the penitent that they are in fact confessing to God, not the priest. The priest is merely acting as an intermediary between sinner and God; a middle man that is bound by secrecy no matter what the confessed sin may be.

A student poses a hypothetical question: "Supposing I told the priest in confession who I was and where I lived and I've kidnapped someone and have him tied up in me basement... Could the priest pass it on to the police?" The by-the-Book Goddard tells him no. Absolutely not. The confessed sin can be the worst thing ever and still, "There are no circumstances where a priest can hand over information of this kind." Unfortunately for Goddard, some of his students are about to put this rule to the test.

Primary focus is put on two students in particular. Benjamin "Benjie" Stanfield (Dominic Guard) and Arthur Dyson (Dai Bradley). Benjie is one of Goddard's favorites and the embodiment of what he expects from his boys. He's bright, polite, well-kept, doesn't have a hair out of place and always seems to have the right answers in class. As a reward, he gets special treatment. Arthur is the polar opposite. He's unkempt, with a crooked tie and greasy hair, seems incapable of keeping his mouth shut to his own detriment and is pathological in his need for acceptance. However, try as he might, fitting in just isn't in the cards for him due to his abrasive, needy, pathetic personality. His trivial comments in class are a constant annoyance to Goddard, who isn't above humiliating him in front of his peers for a laugh. In a nod to how outmoded religious beliefs can be harmful, Goddard's even believes the boy being crippled and having to wear a leg brace is tangible proof that he's not favored in God's eyes.

Rounding out the primary cast is Scottish comedian / musician Billy Connolly as Blakey, a bearded, long-haired free spirit and drifter who shows up at the school looking for handyman work, only to be swiftly rejected by Goddard. That doesn't deter him from camping out in the nearby woods and breaking into the school to steal food and wine. Despite being a teacher's pet of sorts, Benjie starts sneaking away from the school late at night to hang out with him. He confesses he finds the clergy to be "swine" who have nothing better to do than try to make them feel guilty about everything and even makes an aside that he'd like to kill them. Blakey teaches him how to catch trout with his bare hands, sings and plays banjo for him and gives him whiskey.

Even though Blakey could be seen as a bad influence (and certainly would be viewed as such by the church), he represents something else entirely to Benjie: life possibilities apart from the church and their influence. The school is a prison. It's stifling, rule-oriented, limited and not so accepting of independent thought, while the woods are wide open and free. Benjie also knows he can't speak honestly at his school. Not really. One may be able to get some things off their chest at confession, but it's certainly not without a side of condemnation and judgment. With Blakey, he can say whatever he wants without such judgment. After all, if anyone's aware that they have no business critiquing others it's him. He steals, drinks, smokes weed and used to swindle money from people as a palm reader.

When Goddard finds out what Benjie has been up to he makes him promise that he'll never see Blakey again. Benjie, of course, doesn't comply. Instead, he concocts a bizarre plan to get revenge. Sensing (from all indications, rightfully) that Goddard is a repressed homosexual with less than wholesome and fatherly designs on him, Benjie confesses a made-up story that he had group sex with Blakey and his lady friend (Sharon Duce) in the woods. In retaliation, the outraged, perhaps mostly jealous, Goddard secretly sends cops to rough up Blakey, which turns Benjie's new friend against him. Goddard then punishes Benjie further by forcing him to clean and forbidding him to play sports for an entire semester, which only succeeds in further incensing him. What follows is a series of confessions which may or may not be true, and may or may not involve a murder as well as plans for additional murders.

While this is generally well-made and well-shot (by John Coquillon), and the performances from Burton, Guard and Bradley are impressive, I'm not sure this really works as a complete package. Slow to start, the film concentrates primarily on the rigidity of the church system and its effect on the central characters in the first hour before transitioning into more traditional mystery / thriller territory toward the end. The problem is that the character building and astute commentary in the build-up is far more interesting than the thriller aspects and succession of final reel plot twists, which come off as cheap and gimmicky when they finally do arrive. Some viewers won't be as bothered by that as I was. After all, the film has to build up to something. I just wish it had been something a little more thoughtful and a little less predictable.

The film was based on a script (originally conceived as a stage play called A Play with a Gypsy) by Anthony Shaffer, who had a pretty great track record at this point having already written Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972), the acclaimed The Wicker Man (1973) and the classic mystery Sleuth (1974). While this is nowhere near the same standard of those three films, it's not bad either. Andrew Keir (Quatermass and the Pit), Brian Glover and Hilary Mason all show up in small roles.

In various stages of production for a number of years, this had difficulty securing financing. No major studio wanted to touch it (a financially apt decision it turns out as the film was not a box office success), so producer Elliott Kastner had to raise the funds himself. After completion, it ended up sitting in limbo for around three years before gaining a wide release in the UK and wasn't even screened theatrically in the U.S. until it was a decade old. The same year this was dumped in American theaters, it also made its home video debut courtesy of TransWorld and was quickly forgotten. Afterward, the film landed in the public domain, which resulted in a subpar, dark print filling out those cheap 50 movie multi DVD packs.

Absolution has been saved from an uncertain fate thanks to several recent releases, starting with the 2016 Kino Lorber Blu-ray, which is not an impeccable print but still leagues above the earlier full frame DVD presentations. In 2018, the UK label Powerhouse Films / Indicator also released it on BR with a host of extras, including interviews with Page, Guard and costume designer Anne Gainsford. Their release also includes a newly prepared director's cut of the film, which is actually ten minutes shorter than the theatrical release. I viewed Page's cut in its entirety and then skimmed through the longer one to watch the scenes that were trimmed and can confirm that the shorter cut does indeed play better. The major debit with it is that it unnecessarily neuters a key murder scene at the end.

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